M.S. v. Lake Elsinore Unified Sch. Dist.

Decision Date24 July 2015
Docket NumberCase No. 13-CV-01484-CAS (SPx)
PartiesM.S., a minor, by and through her Guardian Ad Litem, PEGGY SARTIN. Plaintiff, v. LAKE ELSINORE UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Central District of California

This case arises under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the "IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. On August 26, 2013, plaintiff M.S., a minor, by and through her Guardian Ad Litem, Peggy Sartin (collectively, "Student"), filed suit against defendant Lake Elsinore Unified School District ("District"), seeking reversal of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") May 22, 2013 decision, which found for District on all of Student's claims.

Presently before the Court is Student's administrative appeal. A hearing was held on January 21, 2015. The parties present the following primary issues for determination: (1) Whether District properly assessed and identified Student'ssuspected disabilities in behavior, anxiety, and sensory integration; (2) Whether District provided services sufficient to allow Student to make academic progress; (3) Whether District violated the IDEA by holding an individualized education plan meeting in the absence of Student's parents; (4) Whether Student is entitled to reimbursement for services provided by Dr. Robin Morris; and (5) Whether Student is entitled to compensatory education.1 Having carefully considered the parties' arguments, the Court finds and concludes as follows.


The IDEA grants federal funds to state and local agencies to provide a special education to children with disabilities. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a); Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson, 4 F.3d 1467, 1469 (9th Cir. 1993). To this end, schools are charged with the responsibility of identifying and assessing all children who are suspected to have disabilities and are in need of special education and related services. 20 U.S.C. § 1400(a)(3); 34 C.F.R. § 300.125; Cal. Educ. Code § 56302.

The purpose of the IDEA is, among other things, to provide all children with disabilities

a free appropriate public education [("FAPE")] that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living; [] to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected; [] and to assist States, localities, educational services agencies, and Federal agencies to provide for the education of all children with disabilities.

20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)-(C). This purpose is implemented through the development of an individualized education plan ("IEP"). An IEP is crafted by a team that includes a student's parents, teachers, and the local educational agency. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d). TheIEP contains the student's present level of performance, annual goals, short and long term objectives, specific services to be provided, the extent to which the student may participate in regular educational programs, and criteria for measuring the student's progress. Id.

The IDEA requires that educators also guarantee certain procedural safeguards to children and their parents, including: notification of any changes in identification, education and placement of the student; parental presence at the IEP meeting; and a mechanism for parents to bring complaints about issues relating to the student's education and placement, which may result in a mediation or a due process hearing conducted by a local or state educational agency hearing officer. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)-(i).

A party may bring a civil action in state or federal court in the event that it is dissatisfied with the decision of an agency hearing officer. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2). "The burden of proof in the district court rest[s] with . . . the party challenging the administrative decision." Hood v. Encinitas Union Sch. Dist., 486 F.3d 1099, 1104 (9th Cir. 2007). The court, in considering a request for review of a hearing officer's decision, must base its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, and grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate. Id.


The decision below contains detailed and thorough factual findings. See AR 351-378. The Court concludes that the factual findings in the decision below are accurate, and adopts them as they are set out. Additionally, since the factual findings encompass matters no longer pursued in this appeal, and to provide context for the Court's decision, the Court summarizes the relevant facts.

Student is a thirteen-year old girl with autism. As a result of her disability, she suffers from deficits in communication, sensory integration, cognitive development, academic functioning, social interaction, anxiety, focus, attention, and behavior. From January 2011 through about June 2012, Student attended Cottonwood ElementarySchool within the District, where she was placed in an alternative education program pursuant to a settlement agreement between Student and District covering claims arising before 2011. As part of the program, Student was placed in a small class with other special education students, a special education teacher, and a one-to-one support aide provided by the Center for Autism and Related Disorders ("CARD").

Between June 8, 2010 and August 12, 2010, Dr. Robert Patterson conducted a psychoeducational independent educational evaluation ("IEE") of Student at District's expense. He observed that Student exhibited significant autism-related behaviors, including sitting on the toilet with her pants on, dunking herself in toilet water, pulling out her eyelashes, punching herself, and other impulse control issues. As Allison Mativa, Student's teacher, also noted, many of Student's behaviors were cyclical in that they would disappear for a time and reoccur later. In the meantime, when one behavior disappeared, another took its place. This pattern continued beyond Dr. Patterson's 2010 IEE and throughout Student's time at Cottonwood.

In April 2011, also pursuant to the settlement agreement, District referred Student to Gallagher Pediatric Therapy ("Gallagher") for an occupational therapy evaluation. Gallagher administered several tests, including the Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency, Second Edition. Gallagher also provided Student's parents ("Parents") and teacher with a Sensory Profile questionnaire designed to measure Student's sensory processing abilities. The version of the questionnaire completed by Parents indicated that Student exhibited a score of "definite difference" from the norm, while the version completed by Student's teacher found that Student exhibited a score of "typical performance."

Finally, in May 2011, District paid for an IEE in speech and language with Lynda Detweiler-Newcomb. Detweiler-Newcomb administered several formal tests, observed Student, interviewed Parents, and reviewed records related to Student's disabilities. In her report, Detweiler-Newcomb concluded that while Student's hearing was withinnormal limits, she was deficient in sound production development, receptive language skills, vocabulary, and verbal and written language skills.

A. The May 9, 2011 IEP and September 19, 2011 Addendum

On May 9, 2011, the parties held an annual IEP meeting. All statutorily required persons attended, as well as a CARD supervisor, an occupational therapist, and a speech and language pathologist. At the meeting, it was determined that Student met two goals from her 2010 IEP, partially met eleven, and failed to meet eight. The eight goals Student did not meet were in academic areas such as writing, math, and reading. While the IEP team amended certain goals for 2011, it adopted others verbatim from the 2010 IEP. Parents objected to the IEP on the grounds that merely carrying over some goals was improper and, in any event, the goals were premised on overstated present levels of performance.

As to Student's behavior, Mativa indicated that in her opinion, Student "appeared to enjoy attending school and interacting with her peers. She has transition[ed] very well into the new classroom placement." Although Student sometimes exhibited certain maladaptive behaviors, Mativa and other teachers classified such behavior as merely attention-seeking.

Parents, however, disagreed. They contended that Cottonwood's alternative program was too difficult for Student academically and that her classmates' behavior was impeding Student's education. Specifically, Parents argued that Student imitated the yelling of obscenities as well as other violent behavior exhibited by her peers. According to Parents, Student had become more aggressive at home and with tutors, sometimes attacking strangers in public. Student had also begun ripping off her toenails and fingernails. Consequently, Parents requested that Student be placed at the Beacon School ("Beacon"), a small, non-public school that specializes in educating autistic children. District formally denied the request on July 14, 2011, stating that it believed Cottonwood was appropriate for Student.

On September 19, 2011, the IEP team met again to discuss Parents' request for placement at Beacon, as well as CARD behavior goals that were not introduced at the original IEP meeting in May. Parents consented to inclusion of the CARD goals. However, Parents reiterated that Student's behavior had progressively worsened since beginning the Cottonwood alternative program in January: Student had pulled out all of her eyelashes, had created a one-inch bald spot on her scalp from pulling out her own hair, manipulated her fingers, and violently scratched, pinched, and grabbed people's necks. On October 3, 2011, District again denied Parents' request for placement at Beacon.

B. The May 8, 2012 IEP

On May 8, 2012, the IEP team met to discuss goals for the 2012-2013 school year. Of the eleven reported goals from 2011, Student had met six, partially...

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